I’ve been on vacation this week in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state…biking, relaxing, reading, eating well. On our bike rides, we’ve seen cows, horses, sheep, an alpaca, fields of wildflowers, historic sites (check out the Pig War), a vineyard, snow-capped mountains, harbor views and an old limestone factory. As I write this, I’m sitting in our hotel room on Orcas Island, enjoying a good book (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris), savoring the view, (below) and getting ready to sample a local beer.
I’m an environmentalist, in part, because I want my children and their children and your children and their children to be able to enjoy beautiful places like this. That is probably not the “best” or most principled argument on behalf of the environment. Global warming, if left unchecked, will have its most devastating effects on poor people in places like Africa and India, according to Oxfam. Rising sea levels could lead to coastal flooding on the eastern seaboard, and to melting glaciers and early snowmelt that will cause dramatic water shortages in the American West, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. We’re in the midst of a new age of extinction, with “extinctions worldwide occurring at a pace that is up to 1,000 times as great as history’s background rate before human beings began proliferating,” Bryan Walsh writes in Time, after traveling through Madagascar with Russell Mittermeier of Conservation International. Many religious people, Christian and Jewish, find reason to protect the earth in their readings of the Bible. (See, for example, the Evangelical Environmental Network and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.)
All that seems abstract and faraway as I enjoy the San Juans. Talk to most people who (unlike me) have been devoted environmentalists all their lives, and you will usually find they share a love of the outdoors. One of the strongest arguments we can make, when trying to persuade others to make the short-term sacrifices that are needed to protect the earth, has to do with our collective legacy. What kind of a world do we want to leave for future generations?